View Full Version : A fairy-tale for our time

25th August 2005, 16:41
<br>Perhaps due to the forthcoming release of Terry Gilliam's <i>Brothers Grimm</i> movie, fairy-tales are currently all the rage.

Whether Gilliam's film captures the untimely world-view of the original fairy-tales or not, it should at least help spur public interest in Old World folklore. It may even prompt a few individuals to actually go back and read the original stories; and when they do, they will enter an environment that--for all of its fantastical elements--is a far more <i>authentic</i> reflection of the human condition than the false reality that is generated by today's mass media.

As a case in point, we would like to share a few excerpts from one folkloric tale. This particular story was not, in fact, set down by the Grimm brothers, but rather, comes from a collection of Russian fables, titled <i><a href="http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0486410196/thejudgmenofpari" target="_blank">The Russian Fairy Book</a>.</i> In its theme and structure, however, it is entirely similar to a Grimm fairy-tale.

The title of the story is "Vasilia the Beauty" and it begins in the customary way:<p><blockquote><i>Once in a certain country lived a merchant. He had been married twelve years and had only one child, a daughter Vasilisa, whom everyone called Vasilisa the Beauty.</i></blockquote><p>As so often happens in fairy-tales, Vasilisa's mother dies while the child is very young. But on her deathbead, with her last strength, Vasilisa's mother presents her daughter with a very special doll, and tells her to keep the doll forever--for as long as she does, Vasilisa will never come to harm.

After the mother passes away, Vasilisa's father decides to re-marry, and he weds a widow with two daughters of her own.

Not surprisinglyly, this leaves Vasilisa in a Cinderella-like predicament. Vasilisa's new stepmother is as wicked as they come, and her two daughters--Vasilisa's new stepsisters--are even worse.

And now, to come to the point . . .

Consider the following passage from the original tale:<p><blockquote><i>The merchant married the widow, but he made a mistake: he did not find in her a good mother for his child. Vasilisa was the prettiest girl in the whole village, and the stepmother and the stepsisters were envious of her beauty. They treated her cruelly <strong>and made her do impossible tasks, so that she might grow thin under the burden and her complexion might turn dark under the wind and sun</strong>. Indeed, it was no life at all for her!</i></blockquote><p>How fascinating to read that the very worst punishment which Vasilisa's stepmother and stepsisters can devise for her, in order to try and <i>diminish</i> Vasilisa's beauty (the beauty that they resent so much) is--essentially--<i>working out and suntanning.</i>

In a saner society than ours, the very same tortures to which women willingly subject themselves today, and on which they even waste their money, are precisely the activities that are described as <i>perilous</i> to Vasilisa's wondrous beauty.

But note how the tale describes Vasilisa's ability to avoid these threats to her appearance:<p><blockquote><i>But Vasilisa bore it uncomplainingly, and <strong>every day she grew more beautiful and plump than ever</strong>, while her stepmother and stepsisters grew <strong>uglier and thinner</strong> from ill-temper.</i></blockquote><p>How refreshing to read the words "beautiful and plump" joined together in the same sentence, with the implication that the latter term is synonymous with the former. And how interesting to find the words "uglier and thinner" similarly paired. The story pointedly asserts that the sisters' ugliness of character is evidenced by their increasing emaciation.<p><center>* * *</center><p>If anyone is curious as to how Vasilisa manages to avoid the drudgery that her stepmother seeks to inflict on her, it is Vasilisa's doll--the doll given to her by her dying mother--which performs Vasilisa's work for her:<p><blockquote><i>The Doll would eat a little and then give her good advice and console her for her sorrow, and before morning came it would finish every one of Vasilisa's tasks. While she was resting in the cool air or gathering flowers, the beds were weeded for her, the cabbages watered, the pails filled, and the fire made. The Doll also taught her how to avoid sunburn . . .</i></blockquote><p>As so often happens in fairy-tales, true beauty triumphs in the end:<p><blockquote><i>Several years passed. Vasilisa had grown up into a beautiful maiden. All the young men in town sought her, though not one of them would so much as look at her stepsisters.</i></blockquote><p>But Vasilisa faces considerable impediments along the way. As Gilliam's film will hopefully demonstrate, Old World fairy-tales do not merely devote themselves to the fair aesthetic of the Beautiful, but also revel in the dark aesthetic of the Sublime.

Consider the following passage from the story, which describes the lead-up to Vasilisa's encounter with <a href="http://www.oldrussia.net/baba.html" target="_blank ">Baba Yaga</a>, the terrifying Great Witch of Slavonic folklore:<p><blockquote><i>Vasilisa walked all night and all day, and only toward the next evening did she reach the clearing where stood the Baba Yaga's hut. The fence around the hut was of men's bones, and the posts were decorated with human skulls. Instead of door-posts were men's leg-bones; instead of shutters were arms; instead of a lock was a mouth with sharp teeth.</i></blockquote><p>Later in the tale, the skulls' eyes gleam with an eerie light.

In the end, though, Vasilisa's beauty catches the eye of the Tsar--who marries her. And they live happily ever after.<p><center>* * *</center><p>Fairy-tales are widely regarded as the stuff of youth, but they have a profound relevance for us today, especially in their original forms. Despite their reputation as the very essence of escapism, they actually lay bare the most extreme human motivations, and present them with unvarnished truthfulness.

When we compare the plots and themes of Old World folklore to present-day film and television, we find that our modern media is far more of a fabrication, far more artificial and dishonest in portraying how people actually behave, and why they do the things that they do, than these supposedly unrealistic tales.

And you may be sure that the same individuals who would have adored Vasilisa as <i>"she grew more beautiful and plump "</i> in a bygone era, would <i>still</i> find such a vixen beautiful today.

Their voices are simply banished from modern culture.

Kati Kochanski modelling for Alfred Angelo:<p><center><img src="http://www.judgmentofparis.com/kk/aa03.jpg "></center>

26th August 2005, 23:32
I actually went to see the movie this evening, and was terribly disappointed. It didn't attempt to depict the essence of the Grimm's tales at all. Some of the visuals were interesting, but the story was a complete mess, and it had no sense of folklore or myth about it at all. The locations, costumes, and behaviour of the people was oddly disjointed - the movie is set in the early 1800s, but at times it looks more like it's taking place in the Middle Ages. And despite the half-timbered architecture, most of the film looks more like it was shot in the Ukraine rather than in Germany.

Worst of all, the lead characters all behave in completely modern ways, and express anachronistically modern attitudes and sensibilitudes. Ultimately, it seems to be a cross between Van Helsing and a satire. What a waste.

I was so frustrated that I walked out, which is a shame, because I wanted to see Monica Bellucci's part, although she apparently has little screen time.

I agree, though, that the one good thing about the film is that it might prompt some interest in folklore - but I hope no one mistakes this film for the real thing.

27th August 2005, 23:07
<br>That is extremely disappointing to hear, but not entirely surprising. If the creators of any artistic adaptation (be they directors, photographers, writers, or editors) are not in sympathy with their source material, their work will usually miss the mark. The creator's ambivalence will be all too evident.

Similarly, plus-size publications succeed or fail based primarily on how sincerely their creators believe in timeless feminine beauty.

The best filmed version of a Grimm fairy-tale is still, of all things, a Disney movie. The 1959 adaptation of "Brier Rose," (a.k.a. <i><a href="http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00005JKHN/thejudgmenofpari" target="_blank">Sleeping Beauty</a></i>) is a flawed work, too much given to low comedy, but visually, it is a masterpiece.

The painted backgrounds in <i>Sleeping Beauty</i> authentically convey the ambience of the primordial forest that once covered Northern Europe. And it was in the shade of those mysterious, primeval woods that the myths and fables which the Grimms preserved for posterity arose.

Spengler writes in <i>The Decline of the West</i> that Germanic culture<p><blockquote><i>found the first of all its symbols in the high forest of the Northern plains, the deciduous forest with its mysterious tracery, its whispering of ever-mobile foliage over men's heads, its branches straining through the trunks to be free of earth . . . the oaks, beeches and lindens with the fitful light-flecks playing in their shadow-filled volume are felt as bodiless, boundless, spiritual. </i> (I, 396)</blockquote><p>And the film actually manages to evoke this feeling:<p><p><center><img src="http://www.judgmentofparis.com/forum/oldworld/cap163.jpg"></center><p>Spengler further claims that<p><blockquote><i>The forest stirrings and the forest solitude . . . completely dominated the Nature of Faustian man (even that of pre-Faustian Celts and Teutons) and imparted to their mythology its peculiar character.</i> (I, 402)</blockquote><p>These sensations are very much present in the Grimm tales, as <i>Sleeping Beauty</i> (alone among the Disney adaptations) indicates:<p><center><img src="http://www.judgmentofparis.com/forum/oldworld/cap167.jpg"></center><p>The film also adheres to a remarkably harmonious aesthetic, with its architecture and interior design strictly conforming to the true Gothic style that dominated the Middle Ages:<p><center><img src="http://www.judgmentofparis.com/forum/oldworld/cap176.jpg"></center><p>And it does not gloss over the dark side of European folklore, featuring elements such as a truly malevolent queen,<p><center><img src="http://www.judgmentofparis.com/forum/oldworld/cap186.jpg"></center><p>a Walpurgisnacht revel,<p><center><img src="http://www.judgmentofparis.com/forum/oldworld/cap206.jpg"></center><p>and perhaps the most impressive dragon ever conceived by Hollywood; a figure of evil worthy of rank with the Balrog in <i>The Fellowship of the Ring</i>:<p><center><img src="http://www.judgmentofparis.com/forum/oldworld/cap189.jpg"></center><p>And although Brier Rose herself is thin, her facial features are round, not oval, and her magnificent tresses possess the "voluptuous volume" that one usually associates with plus-size goddesses:<p><center><img src="http://www.judgmentofparis.com/forum/oldworld/cap201.jpg"></center><p>She is altogether the most attractive of Disney's heroines.

<center>* * *</center><p>This all suggests a concept for what could truly be a memorable plus-size model pictorial.

First, one would book one (or more) of the industry's "fair princesses," such as Kelsey Olson, Charlotte Coyle, Valerie Lefkowitz (if she is ever again genuinely full figured) or Shannon Marie (if one could persuade her).

Then, one would enlist the services of a bridal-magazine photographer, or the photographer of the latest Saks catalogue, or whoever shot Lane Bryant's Spring 2005 campaign.

And when the right team was assembled, one would ask them to re-create a series of scenes recalling the best-loved Grimm tales (e.g., Briar Rose waking from her slumber, Snow White being tempted by the apple, etc.).

The results would be truly spectacular, especially since (as <i>ElleGirl</i> magazine noted in its latest issue) the clothing styles that one associates with this Old World aesthetic are very much in fashion.

The attire wouldn't need to resemble "costume," but rather, could consist of any of the romantic styles that are currently in the stores. Anything with ultra-feminine details, from lace, to split sleeves, to frills and ruffles, would work very well in such a layout. A series of well-chosen backgrounds, and the models themselves, would provide all of the necessary magic.

It would be an artistic statement like none other, and would satisfy any retailer's commercial needs. Furthermore, it would reaffirm the status of plus-size goddesses as the true living embodiments of the fairy-tale <i>ideal</i> of feminine beauty.